Book Reviews

Donkey Strong

When the Democratic Party stays close to the people, it wins.

By John Milton Cooper, Jr.

Tagged Democratic PartyFranklin Delano RooseveltMichael Kazin

Why don’t Democrats, rather than Republicans, call themselves the “Grand Old Party”? As one of the two main players in American politics, they not only antedate their adversaries by at least a generation, but they are also, as Michael Kazin notes in the opening sentence of this excellent book, “the oldest mass party in the world.” Democrats have apparently eschewed similar self-aggrandizement because they believe they can trace their origins back to Thomas Jefferson.

Kazin calls this claim to Jeffersonian origins a “useful myth.” Its progenitor was the party’s true founder and second President, Martin Van Buren. Kazin insightfully probes Van Buren’s role in creating the first true mass party through organizing, canvassing, publicity, patronage, and financing—none of which Jefferson or any of the Founders had envisioned or desired. Unfortunately, Van Buren was, as Kazin says, “better at creating a party than leading one.” An economic depression willed to him by his predecessor Andrew Jackson, combined with his Whig opponents creating a mass party of their own, doomed him to one term. Ironically, Van Buren’s defeat in 1840 testified to how much he had transformed American politics.

The first half of this book treats the Democrats’ career up to 1933 and the second half the time afterward. Broadly speaking, Kazin sees three heydays and three death-fearing “nadirs” during these nearly two centuries. The first heyday spanned the Jackson-Van Buren years up to the Civil War. The first nadir came in the next three decades, down to the 1890s. The second heyday came with William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, followed by the nadir of the 1920s. The third heyday came with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and ended with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The last apparent nadir has encompassed the time since then. Kazin writes with critical sympathy toward a party he confesses he has supported, with rare lapses, since age 12, when he distributed leaflets for John Kennedy in 1960.

Kazin’s overarching thesis is that the party’s origins set its enduring lodestar in what he calls “moral capitalism”:

Only programs designed to make life more prosperous, or at least more secure, for ordinary people proved capable of uniting Democrats and winning over enough voters to enable the party to create a governing majority that could last for more than one or two election cycles. Party leaders understood that most voters saw no alternative to the system of markets and wages, and they did not try to offer one. But they also believed, quite accurately, that the capitalist order failed to produce the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Even today, despite sharp differences, Democrats remain faithful to that vision. It offers both strength and weakness to the party: strength because, in economic matters at least, it generally reaches out to disadvantaged folk; weakness, because, in something like combatting authoritarianism, it does not readily emulate the warlike ethos of its adversaries.

The first Democratic heyday, from 1828 to 1860, left lasting legacies in economic policy and territorial expansion, but those feats carried a stiff price. Jacksonian hostility to central banking initiated eight decades of debate about that issue, which ended with the establishment of the Federal Reserve—by Democrats. Territorial expansion raised the specter of slavery extension, which soon tore both the party and the nation apart in the Civil War.

The Democrats’ first nadir saw them banished from the White House for all but eight nonconsecutive years from the Civil War until the eve of World War I. It could have sounded the party’s death knell. Because most Southern Democrats were secessionists and because many of their Northern brethren had sympathized with them, Republicans could wave the proverbial “bloody shirt” to accuse them of treason. Republicans also had an auxiliary corps in the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, which augmented the party’s apparatus, in much the same way organized labor would do later for the Democrats.

This first Democratic nadir was not as bad as it seemed. During those three decades after the Civil War, the party racked up good showings in presidential contests and twice won the popular vote in races they lost thanks to the Electoral College. The Republican slur that Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” actually characterized the party of this era accurately. Outside the South, Democrats did not warm to the major Protestant evangelical-inspired cultural/moral issue of the time, Prohibition. In Northern cities they welcomed white immigrants who were not Protestants, first Irish Catholics and later their co-religionists from the Continent, as well as Jews and Orthodox Christians. They gathered these newcomers into their notorious “machines,” which had well-earned reputations for corruption but which also served as primitive social service agencies, ministering to the needs of their poverty-stricken followers. The next generation of machine politicians produced some true social reformers, especially two New Yorkers, Alfred E. (Al) Smith and Robert F. Wagner.

“Rebellion” was a code word for the Democrats’ Southern base, and it was linked to another “R”—its ugly partner, “Racism.” Southern Democrats also built machines, but these aimed at exclusion, as they used various means to manipulate and frighten away Black people who wanted to vote and then resorted to legislative and state constitutional measures to banish them from the polls entirely. A newer generation of their leaders, spearheaded by “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina, ratcheted up anti-Black rhetoric and incited violence. They did feel a need to respond to the economic grievances of smaller white farmers, especially because of the threat from the Farmers’ Alliance and its political arm, the People’s (Populist) Party, to form biracial coalitions of poor farmers and workers. Meanwhile, Northern Democrats remained indifferent or hostile to the plight of Black Americans. On racism, Kazin quotes the editor of this journal labeling “The Pre-FDR Democrats: A Horrible Party.” They were horrible on other matters, too. Their one President of this time, Grover Cleveland, clung to a straitjacketed view of government’s role in all economic and social affairs. He and his ilk were the true progenitors of the vise of anti-government dogma that grips Republicans today.

The Democrats’ second heyday began with their repudiation of Grover Cleveland and Clevelandism in 1896. It was an odd heyday because they were banished from the presidency and congressional majorities in all but eight years of the next three and a half decades. The Republicans’ new lease on electoral hegemony now rested on economic issues and had started with the onset of a depression on Cleveland’s watch and the resulting association of the Democrats with hard times—a prefiguration of their own future downfall.

Yet the quarter century before 1920 was a glorious time for Democrats. This was the era of Bryan and Wilson. Of the two, Bryan was far more important to the party, except in one area. He never made it to the White House, even though the party nominated him for the presidency three times. Bryan gained an ardent following among Southern and Western Democrats by championing anti-monopoly and pro-regulatory views. His Protestant evangelical style did not sit well with urban machine elements, but his steadfast friendship toward organized labor earned him the first endorsement of a candidate by Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor. This was the beginning of the courtship that eventually led to a marriage between the labor movement and the Democrats. It was with Bryan that the Democratic Party of the twentieth century truly took shape.

Kazin has told Bryan’s story before in a critically sympathetic biography, and he tells it again here with equal flair and special attention to affairs of party. Yet here is where I raise some of my few reservations about this book. I think he shortchanges Wilson. In the biblical analogy, Bryan was the Democrats’ Moses, who led the faithful through the wilderness years but was not permitted to enter the Promised Land of victory (although he was a loyal, energetic partner during the first two years of Wilson’s presidency). Bryan paved the way for Wilson to become a conquering Joshua with the New Freedom (tariff and banking reform, and new regulation of business), and in the next generation for Franklin Roosevelt to become a still greater Joshua with the New Deal. Wilson showed masterful party leadership in getting his programs through Congress, and he played a much more vital role in the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (woman suffrage) than Kazin gives him credit for.

A greater reservation concerns foreign affairs, which Kazin slights the importance of at the time and later. In the 1910s Wilson took the party in a new direction. Earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century, Bryan had led the Democrats in opposing the Republicans’ ventures into colonialism and departure from diplomatic isolation. With World War I, Wilson forged a synthesis between Democrats’ anti-imperialism and Republicans’ penchant for great power politics in an idealistic internationalism that would eventually become the party’s dominant stance on foreign affairs. It was here that Bryan broke with Wilson. He resigned as secretary of state rather than risk intervention in the war, and he mounted the first fully articulated isolationist response to the new internationalist vision. In 1916, he battled Wilson over military and foreign affairs and for control of the party, and he lost.

I can understand why Kazin does not delve much into these matters. Foreign affairs have rarely played a central role in electoral outcomes. In 1916, Democrats’ campaign cry “He Kept Us Out Of War” paled in its impact compared with issues surrounding the New Freedom. Other reputed foreign affairs elections, such as 1940 (aid to the Allies versus America First) or 1968 (hawk versus dove on Vietnam), likewise turned much more decisively on domestic issues of their time. Still, foreign affairs would play a major role at several junctures among Democrats.

Compound failures during Wilson’s second term—rejection of the League of Nations, inflation and widespread strikes, the anti-radical Red Scare, and his own physical collapse from a major stroke—contributed to a Democratic implosion in 1920 that resurrected Republican hegemony. The Democrats then fell into their second and best-known nadir, when they seemed bent on self-destruction through internecine strife. The ethnic-based machines of the Northeast and Midwest butted heads with Bryan’s erstwhile following in the South and West in fights over Prohibition, immigration restriction, and the rise of nativist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The spectacularly deadlocked 1924 convention and the 1928 nomination of Al Smith, the first Catholic major party candidate, showcased the party’s seismic rifts while the Republicans coasted along taking credit for economic prosperity. A few bright spots did relieve this gloom. Smith’s candidacy, though alienating Protestants, especially in the South, injected fresh vigor into the urban wing of the party. An additional force that Kazin emphasizes was newly enfranchised women, who had their own organized wing of the party that featured such future luminaries as Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt. They pushed Democrats in more progressive, pro-labor, and social welfarist directions. Kazin credits them with laying the foundations for much of what came to pass under the New Deal.

Then the wheel of fortune turned decisively in the Democrats’ favor. The Great Depression gave them a new lease on political life just at the moment when an ideal candidate to heal their divisions emerged in the person of Franklin Roosevelt. He was governor of New York but not tied to the city machine, a Protestant who had served in the Wilson Administration, a friend to leading Southern Democrats, and, thanks to his own family and marriage to the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, possessed of a magic political name. Soon, his ebullient personality and unbeatable public performances would ensure his domination of the political scene during this third Democratic heyday, which would extend after his death for another two decades.

Kazin concentrates on what happened to the party under the New Deal. Party chairman and Postmaster General James (Jim) Farley gets credit for organization and outreach, but the main story is one of groups seeking out the Democrats. Earlier, under Wilson four of the five elements that now made up the New Deal coalition had temporarily come together: the (white) South, farmers, urban ethnics, and organized labor. Hard times now quelled earlier temptations for the first two elements to stray over cultural issues. Urbanites likewise welcomed economic aid and applauded the elevation of their own people to significant offices. Organized labor was surging in numbers and militancy and found friends among Democrats, particularly Senator Robert Wagner, who authored the monumental labor relations act that created a new federal agency to oversee and give a fairer field for union efforts to organize. Kazin credits this element with transforming the Democrats into a truly liberal party both then and in decades to come.

Finally, there came an entirely new element: African Americans. The Great Migration of Black people out of the South to Northern cities, which had begun 20 years earlier, had given them true political leverage for the first time. Among the poorest of the poor, they found nothing for them in Republican pro-business economic policies, and they resented decades of neglect as Republicans had courted white Southern votes and exulted in cracking the “Solid South” in 1928. Farley and members of the Roosevelt Administration were generally receptive to approaches from Black leaders, while some, especially the First Lady, were positively welcoming. Kazin does not make much of FDR’s own role in this Democratic transformation, and rightly so. The President appears to have played little active role, and in the case of the labor and Black votes he was cool and wary. He was not close to labor’s leaders, especially John L. Lewis, and he kept African Americans at arm’s length for fear of alienating Southern whites, particularly powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill.

FDR does not emerge in these pages as an adept party or domestic leader. His self-inflicted wounds in 1937 and ’38 through his Court-packing plan, the recession induced by his spending cuts, and his unsuccessful effort to “purge” conservative Democrats fed a Republican and conservative Democratic resurgence that ended the New Deal. This new Democratic majority coalition rested on an inherently unstable footing, inasmuch as it yoked the white South to organized labor and Black voters. As early as the mid-1930s, many Southerners were growing restive within the party. Their alienation would grow and ultimately end this third heyday.

Like Wilson, FDR may have made his greatest contribution to his party in foreign affairs. He also took it down a path it would most likely not have followed otherwise. During the great isolationist upsurge of the mid-1930s he did not resist “neutrality” legislation, and he made a few isolationist remarks himself. Yet, when World War II broke out in Asia in 1937 with Japan’s invasion of China, he began to move against the isolationists. He expressed public sympathy for the Allies, and before and after his third-term victory he extended material aid to them. FDR never admitted it, perhaps even to himself, but he was maneuvering the country ever closer to intervention. It is hard to imagine a different President doing the same things, and his apparent vindication at Pearl Harbor and the corresponding discrediting of the isolationists left lasting legacies for his party and politics in general.

This episode is important for the way foreign policy has figured in political conflict since then. Kazin comments on how during the Cold War Democrats felt the need to prove themselves tough on communism at home and abroad in order to fend off Republican attacks even before Joe McCarthy’s rampage. This was not just a matter of tactics. The collapse of isolationism left a vacuum that was filled by assertiveness abroad. Among Republicans, most of whom had flirted with isolationism in their search for viable issues against FDR, some would convert to internationalism and bipartisanship, but others, such as Robert Taft and William F. Knowland, embraced unilateralism and “Asia First.” The collapse of Henry Wallace’s anti-Cold War presidential bid in 1948 ruled out serious criticism among Democrats of perceived excesses of interventionism for a generation, until Vietnam. The road to Vietnam did not necessarily start in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, but among Democrats the mindset that made it possible, even likely, arose out of that experience.

After FDR’s death, the party repeatedly feared new nadirs, first after their rout in the 1946 midterms, which raised the specter of a repeat of post-World War I events, and again in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower led the Republicans to his landslide election and slim congressional majorities. Meanwhile, Democrats were wrestling with growing internal divisions between the Southern and Northern wings, which the Supreme Court’s ruling against school segregation and newly inspired protests by Black civil rights leaders were exacerbating. Presidential victories in 1948 and 1960 relieved some of their anxiety, but those wins, as Kazin characterizes the 2020 outcome, “spelled relief instead of deliverance.”

The 1960s witnessed the last gasp of this third Democratic heyday. The party shook off its racist past and came down on the side of civil rights with the passage of a strong anti-discrimination measure in 1963. Kazin gives much of the credit for this turn to Hubert Humphrey, who had been pushing the party in that direction since 1948. Such credit is richly deserved, but I think Kazin unfairly slights Lyndon Johnson’s role in passing this and other civil rights laws and the economic reforms of the Great Society. LBJ was the greatest promoter of racial justice in the White House since Lincoln. Domestic turmoil was already battering the Democratic coalition, but it is tempting to wonder what he might have accomplished if he had followed his instinct to concentrate on domestic affairs and resisted the fatal lure of Vietnam. But LBJ did not intend to suffer the fate of the isolationists or others who failed to stand up to foreign “menaces.”

The half century since the end of that last Democratic heyday takes up the last quarter of the book. This time might also be described as a penumbra. There were dark days, especially during the Nixon and Reagan years, and false dawns, as with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, though less so with Barack Obama. Clinton and Obama both got reelected, and they did oversee some domestic accomplishments, particularly Obama in health care. Yet they also brought “relief instead of deliverance.” In all this time, Democrats have been searching for a new majority. The increasing attraction of well-educated, relatively affluent people in suburbs, whom Kazin calls “cosmopolitans,” has partially offset the loss of the white South, but it has not compensated for the increasing alienation of working-class and rural whites. Kazin sees the way out of this predicament in a revived labor movement, and he blames much of the party’s decline on the erosion of union numbers and activism. His final words are “We organize, we vote, and we win.”

That is a fine exhortation, but I wonder whether the current union movement, centered around teachers and other public employees and service and transportation workers, can wield the same clout as those earlier, big-shouldered bodies based in heavy industry. Still, it is worth a try. Organizing and militancy are likewise needed by all who feel marginalized and under attack—immigrants, people of color, women who seek access to abortion and equal pay, LGBTQ persons, those who are fearful of gun violence, anyone worried about the environment and climate change. Then there are the gorillas in the room—income inequality and threats to democracy. Happy chatter about bipartisan solutions can seldom be more than that. Serious attention and action on these matters can only come, as Michael Kazin’s excellent book shows over and over, from the Democratic Party.

Economic issues seem to present more hopeful terrain. “Moral capitalism” inspires most Democrats across the board these days. The Inflation Reduction Act may be a stripped-down Build Back Better, but it’s meaningful progress. In the past, social issues have proven harder for the party to handle, although these days Democrats do seem to speak with one voice on matters of race, gender, and sexual identity. More daunting are such challenges as climate change and the threat to democracy. Moral capitalism does not offer much help here, but the party’s earlier fitful yet eventually lasting embrace of internationalism does hold out grounds for hope. In these peril-filled times, this frequently fallible but truly grand old party is, to borrow other Republican-coined words, “the last best hope of earth.”

Read more about Democratic PartyFranklin Delano RooseveltMichael Kazin

John Milton Cooper, Jr. taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has written about the Progressive Era, World War I, and Woodrow Wilson. He has been an active Democrat since campaigning for Harry Truman among his fellow third-graders.

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